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It’s (Still) and Android World- May 2016 Edition

EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s best to print out the first page of the attached before reading this column.

Mid-May greetings from Charlotte and Dallas, where graduation week is beginning.  As a result, there will be no Sunday Brief over the Memorial Day weekend.  Our final column will be on June 5.  Thanks to the hundreds of you who have sent well wishes and expressed how much this column has meant to you over the years.

 

In many of the well-wishing email exchanges, I have asked “What column has been the most impactful to you?”  Without a doubt, it’s been the “Dear ________” letters.  Right behind that, however, are the Android World chronicles.  This week, we’ll take a final look at the devices being offered by each of the four largest wireless carriers, and discuss some of the Android N features that were revealed this week at Google’s annual conference.  But first, a couple of shout outs.

 

jimmy-chilesExteNet’s acquisition of Telecom Properties Inc. was announced on May 11 (pricing and terms not disclosed).  For those of you who are not familiar with TPI, they are a Dallas-based firm that specializes in providing custom Distributed Antenna Systems.  Specifically, TPI has built up a broad portfolio of sports venues (e.g., Madison Square Garden, AT&T Stadium, others) that serve multiple wireless carriers.  This is a great outcome for both companies and congrats to Jimmy Chiles (picture nearby), Jeff Alexander, and the rest of the TPI team on their successful exit.

wayne-868Also, AT&T announced the acquisition of Quickplay Media this week from private equity powerhouse Madison Dearborn Partners for an undisclosed amount.   Kudos to Wayne Purboo (pictured), founder and CEO of Quickplay, for his steadfast leadership through a rapid growth period (according to the announcement, Quickplay has more than 350 employees and contractors).  This acquisition fills in a critical piece for AT&T, and will enable seamless distribution of DirecTV content to wireless subscribers. More on Quickplay’s capabilities here.

 

It’s (Still) an Android World

Back when we wrote the first Android World column a few years ago (here’s a link to a June 2011 version), the thesis was that Google’s commitment to an open architecture was spawning a shakeup in the smartphone manufacturing world, and that Android represented a far greater threat to Apple’s market leadership than anyone anticipated.  We also talked about the damaging effects of Android on Blackberry and Nokia (now Microsoft).

 

What we did not anticipate was how significant the changes would be.  The HTC Dream (aka, the T-Mobile G1), announced in September 2008, seemed exactly like that – a dream, ready to be dashed by Apple as they rode iOS into consumer smartphone dominance.

 

Had Apple played their exclusivity hand differently with Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile, the outcome might have been domination.  But Verizon dove in head first with Android, announcing the first DROID lineup in September 2009 (for some history, here’s the original “I Don’t” commercial).  When it came time to introduce their first LTE phone (the HTC Thunderbolt) in 2011, it was not introduced on an iPhone but on Android (commercial here – For those of you who do not follow the industry closely, Verizon introduced the iPhone 4 in February 2011 and the Thunderbolt the following month).

 

And Verizon was not the only US wireless carrier to announce a flagship Android phone.  In March 2010, Sprint announced the HTC EVO (still one of their all-time best sellers – 2011 commercial here) which featured 2.5 GHz WiMax services through their Clearwire partnership.  It was launched three months after the original announcement and put Sprint on the map ahead of Verizon’s Thunderbolt launch.  Sprint would not receive iPhone access until October 2011, and only then with a 30 million device commitment.

 

Android steadily became known as the platform for innovation, flexibility, speed… and sugary sweet operating system names.  The ecosystem was developing nicely.  Then came the Samsung Galaxy S III in 2012.  Prior to this time, Samsung was just another player in the Android ecosystem with HTC, Motorola, LG, and Kyocera.   After the release of the S III, Samsung assumed the mantle of smartphone leader, launching the Note II and Mini product versions by that fall.

 

global smartphone shipments market shareThe nearby chart tells the rest of the story – Android, led by Samsung, began to grow – quickly.  China, and then India, emerged as the largest addressable market opportunities (in 2012/ 2013, neither was a large Apple market).  Android suppliers such as Micromax, Spice and Karbonn in India (see phone comparison here) filled the nearly insatiable demand for smartphones, so much so that the Android One reference platform was announced in 2014.

 

Bottom Line:  From nothing, Android assumed an 80% market share in about just over five years.  Nokia/ Microsoft Windows OS are reduced to a few Stock Keeping Units (SKUs) in the back of the store or the bottom of the website, Palm and Symbian vanished, and Blackberry has been clinging since 2012.  Google continues to be focused on Android inter-operability with VR, Chrome, Android wear, Nest, and other platforms.  In response, Apple released the iPhone SE which out of the gate was categorized as “not for the US but for the developing world.”

 

Where does this leave us today?  Here’s the latest Android World matrix:

android world latest

 

For those of you who are not familiar with the format, a few notes.  Represented are 24-month pricing from each of the major carriers’ websites (research undertaken from May 19-21).  The underlying operating system is color coded.  No refurbished or out of stock models are shown, and, for the purposes of comparison, we have used AT&T’s Next 18 month rates (which require 24 payments despite the name).  Where needed, we have also indicated Sprint’s leased (as opposed to Equipment Installment Plan) as well as T-Mobile’s Extended LTE equipped devices.

 

There are several interesting developments.  First, the iPhone SE is currently out of stock on most carrier websites with phones ordered today not expected to be delivered until late June/ early July (see link here and here).  The extent to which this has been a deliberate move by Apple (some going so far as to call it a bait-and-switch) is debated; The Sunday Brief sides with the camp that it’s driven by supply constraints as Apple readies an even less expensive version (for a really good historical matrix of Apple pricing, see this Macworld article).

 

Second, Sprint isn’t leasing as many models as they have in the past.  Currently, the models covered by the iPhone forever and Galaxy forever lease constructs are the Samsung Galaxy S7, S7 Edge, and Note 5 as well as the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus.  Everything else is Equipment Installment Plan (EIP) based.  This is half of the ten models offered for lease in October.  Sprint’s crazy deals on iPhone 6S devices with trade-in ($15/19 monthly lease rates for 24 months) are now a thing of the past – you will now shell out a similar amount as for an EIP but receive the right to automatically upgrade as soon as the next generation is released.

 

Net-net, this is a positive for Sprint because they get out of the residual value estimation business.  While the upgrade process is slowing down (implying there might be a supply-driven residual opportunity), the risk of being stuck with a large number of off-lease devices still exists.  It also will help financial analysts more accurately ascertain a comparable EBITDA rate for Sprint.

 

It’s also interesting to note that Sprint has thrown out both Windows and Blackberry by design.  No Blackberry Classic or PRIV or Passport.  No Lumia anything.  Keeping it simple for the customer (as well as customer service reps) – smart move.

 

Finally, one cannot help but notice the shrinking bottom layer (< $10/ month EIP) of this chart which will likely continue to shrink in future years.  AT&T really has two offered devices below $10, and it would not be surprising to see Verizon at this level shortly.  Driving this is the growth of Bring Your Own Devices, something quite common in the MVNO/ Wholesale world and now beginning to show up with each of the Big 4.

 

moto x example glydeHave a look at the Motorola X for sale on Glyde (16 GB – works on AT&T – $77.25 refurb; $90 new – $6 shipping).  It’s a good deal for a 4.5 star rated phone on PhoneArena: Android Lollipop compatible, 4.7 inch screen, 316 ppi, 10 MP camera with an HD camcorder, 2GB RAM, 16 or 32 GB ROM, 2200 mAh battery, 802.11 ac Wi-Fi.  All for $80 with shipping.  And fully compatible (except for Band 12) with the T-Mobile network if things don’t work out with AT&T.

 

This story is repeated hourly within the Android world (Apple iPhones tend to hold their value better).  Like we saw with free phones in the subsidy days, the prospect of a gently used model with complete freedom to move between (some) carriers is enticing for bargain shoppers.  And this is going to get even easier with the rise of soft SIM devices (see the latest Apple iPhone carrier compatibility chart here or the Google Nexus LTE network specifications here).  For many, a device is simply going to be a means to access a network full of applications.  Until the value proposition of faster networks catches up, customers are more than content than to postpone upgrades. 

 

Bottom line:  Android is big – really big.  From last week’s Google I/O conference (see video summary from The Verge here), it’s about to get even bigger and more integrated into the full Google product line.  Google excels at software development, but not necessarily software integration.  Android’s future depends on its most complex challenge:  an integrated end state.
Thanks for your readership and continued support of this column.  No column next week for the Memorial Day holiday, but if something comes out on the Open Internet Order, we’ll be ready with a quick analysis on the website.  As a result of the job change, we are not going to accept any new readers, but you can direct them to www.mysundaybrief.com for the full archive.  Thanks again for your readership, and Go Royals!

 

Understanding Broadband’s Tomorrowland

lead pic (18)Mid-May greetings from Cleveland, the Deep South, and Dallas (Dallas Jesuit College Prep pictured –  they won their first state championship this weekend). Thanks to the hundreds of you who have sent well wishes and expressed how much this column has meant to you over the years.

 

A few of you have asked “How do I stay informed about the industry?”  While it is not as in-depth as this column, I think Ben Evans weekly is one that you should add to your list.  If you subscribe to his free newsletter (arrives late Sunday/ early Monday), you’ll get 10-12 links to decent articles, statistics, and opinion.  Not much verbiage, but a very good column.

 

Jeff Miller, one of the leading economic voices in the United States and a new-found friend, is the exact opposite.  His lengthy columns (latest here) are a combination of economic analysis and market research.  It will not be an industry column, but if you want thoughtful perspectives on the macro trends which shape demand within our industry, Jeff’s column can’t be beat.

 

Lastly, I cannot say enough the friendship and support of Jeff Mucci, the editor of RCR Wireless.  Jeff has resurrected telecom publishing (I remember the day he bought RCR Wireless and came to visit me at Sprint for help) and made researching the industry less of a task and more of an adventure.

 

This week, we’ll weave in earnings, discuss the implications of the new Charter/ TWC/ Bright House, and discuss the future of broadband in America.

 

Understanding Broadband’s Tomorrowland

broadband 25 Mbps penetration by stateTrying to figure out a catchy title for describing broadband trends in the United States is tricky.  Everyone knows that broadband speeds are growing (we are all witnesses), total connections are skyrocketing, and business model shifts are beginning to take place that signal step-functions of demand growth (ask Hulu, Disney and others).  Without a doubt, there will be growth, but how much and where will it come from?

Nearby is the adoption rate of 25 Mbps or higher speeds ranked by state.  This is taken from Akamai’s 2015 State of the Internet report (full report here).  While 25 Mbps is a fairly arbitrary figure established by the FCC (a key figure in the competitiveness evaluation of the Comcast/ Time Warner Cable merger), it is a proxy for the new residential world:  concurrent high-bandwidth usage.

 

What’s important in this report is neither that Delaware and the District are topping the list (small geographical footprints can help this), nor that the vast majority of these states will still be in Verizon FiOS territory (8 of the 10 states).  It’s the annual growth rate.  When speeds are available, customers will adopt in record numbers, up to an economic ceiling.

 

There are many in the traditional telco and cable communities with whom I have had the following conversation over the past four years:

 

Provider:             I don’t see the need to deploy [select new technology].  There’s no use case for that speed level.

Me:                        That’s the wrong question.

Provider:             Can you envision how people will use 300/500 megabits or 1 Gigabit per second?

Me:                        Yes.  Over the top (OTT) streaming, especially at 4K speeds.  Resolutions will force more bandwidth needs per second.  But it’s still the wrong question.

Provider:             Well, what’s the right question?

Me:                        Can you make higher speeds affordable to more than 80% of your homes passed? Specifically, can you provide 75 Mbps or more for the same rate as 12 Mbps and make more money in the process?

Provider:             Why would I want to do price down service?

Me:                        Which is more important, the total economic value created or the margin percentage on a given product line?

 

… and the conversation continues from there.  Most product managers struggle with the idea that customers value availability over utility.

 

2016_cadillac_escalade_4dr-suv_platinum_fq_oem_1_300Instead of being in the telecom service provider industry, imagine that we were producing automobiles and trucks.  Using the current utility theory, no one should be paying $45-60K for a gas guzzling BMW X5 or Infiniti QX80 or $80K or more for a Cadillac Escalade.

 

But they are.  BMW X5 sales are up 17% form 2014, Cadillac Escalade 2015 unit sales up 18%, and QX80 sales are up 21% (full data table here).  Combined, these three models sold 110K units in 2015.  Consumers purchased these vehicles because of proven brand and performance, not for utility.

 

Envisioning tomorrow’s broadband world begins with the assumption that many/ most consumers would buy more bandwidth if the performance was consistent and the price/ value tradeoff was right ($10 for 50 Mbps more).  It continues with the assumption that bandwidth downgrades will be rare (and driven by economics, not availability).

 

It ends with the fact that product lines are quickly blurring between connectivity and content delivery.  High Speed Internet services are quickly becoming the “new video.” The interface between these lies in a next generation of set-top box which merges Over the Top (OTT) content with traditional broadcast media, live with on-demand content, and sponsored versus subscribed business models.

 

This model lends itself to traditional broadband providers who enjoy owner’s economics for connectivity.  That is, if they change their thinking from “What will customers use?” to “What will customers value?”  That’s the key to understanding broadband’s Tomorrowland.

 

Charter Merges with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks:  What’s Next?

This week, thousands of cable executives will gather in Boston for the 2016 Internet and Television Expo.   There will be endless discussions on the competitive threat posed by 5G wireless services (which only poses a threat for about 50% of the consumer segment; business competition could prove to be much more significant), the financial impact of political advertising on second quarter earnings and profits (especially in states like California and Indiana), and what the FCC could do to the industry with a more progressive administration (think Unbundled Network Elements or UNE- Cable).

 

Walking tallest at this week’s show will be John Malone and Tom Rutledge.  In the vein of “Good things come to those who wait,” this duo has stood firm in their vision to consolidate a fractured industry and steer its direction.  This vision became reality on Thursday when the California Public Utility Commission decided to unanimously approve the Charter/ TWC/ Bright House merger (LA Times article here).

 

At the federal level (see here for full filing), the new Charter agreed to several conditions, including:

 

  1. Providing an affordable High Speed Internet solution to at least 525,000 homes nationwide;
  2. No data caps for at least seven years;
  3. Overbuilding (likely with a nationwide Multi-Dwelling Unit initiative) one million homes nationwide in an effort to increase competition;
  4. Free interconnection and favorable qualification conditions for content companies wishing to peer with the new Charter;
  5. Agreeing not to undermine the viability of Over the Top providers for the next seven years.

 

These conditions are far more stringent than those imposed on any other wireline merger.  Will they hamstring Charter’s ability to compete?

 

The simple answer is no.  While the name is new, the underlying organization will remain the same for the next few years.  Charter territories will continue to lead with 60 Mbps service to residential and business customers (nothing slower is available).  Time Warner Cable will continue to offer a wide variety of speeds starting at 3 Mbps for $14.99/ month (full listing of Dallas, TX offerings here).  All of these speeds with come without caps.

DOCSIS 3.0 to 3.1 comparisonMeanwhile, Charter will intensely focus on growing the next generation of services, currently called DOCSIS 3.1 (see this LightReading article for a good primer on this technology).  As we discussed in the earlier segment, Charter will be working to make 100 Mbps a replacement to the current 60 Mbps in the near future and to use its global purchasing power to keep modem costs low (and available for direct purchase).  Having a standard 100 Mbps rate will provide a near-term competitive advantage versus DSL.  On top of this, Charter will continue Bright House and Time Warner Cable’s rich history of municipal Wi-Fi deployments, likely leveraging their large business footprints to provide improved coverage and speeds.

 

The greatest near-term changes to the new Charter will likely be in their commercial services unit.  Coordinating fiber deployments (including potential small cell services to carriers), improving site serviceability tools and revamping trouble management will be some of the first changes seen in 2016.   Also, the years of work put in by Time Warner and Bright House to build a joint Internet backbone will be immediately noticed by Charter customers.

 

On the cost side, self-service will become the mantra for both consumer and business customers.  Whether this will include all existing products or is confined to newly launched products remains to be seen (to keep incremental headcount low during the transition to DOCSIS 3.1, it’s likely some self-help capability will be needed for legacy products).  Strong self-service tools will also mitigate the customer service “ping pong” that can happen with many mergers.

 

Bottom line:  The new Charter will continue the traditions of their predecessor companies: speed, quality, consistency, service availability, and value.  To continue their pro forma growth trajectories, they will need to put more tools in the hands of their customers and define a brand around simplicity and speed.  Having Liberty Global’s purchasing power will help with overall cost structures, and some franchise trading (known in the industry as “re-clustering”) will improve economics even further.

 

Thanks for your readership and continued support of this column.  Next week, we’ll wrap up our earnings analysis and hopefully have some comments on the Open Internet Order.  As a result of the job change, we are not going to accept any new readers, but you can direct them to www.mysundaybrief.com for the full archive.  Thanks again for your readership, and Go Royals!

Sprint’s Head is Above Water

opening pic (15)Mother’s Day greetings from Charlotte (Wells Fargo Championship pictured) and Dallas.  Thanks again for all of the well wishes concerning my new job, and we’ll miss the interaction with each of you through The Sunday Brief every week.  Again, our last issue will be June 5 (four more issues including this one, as we’ll take a break for Memorial Day) and we have a lot to cover before then.

 

This week, we’ll spend some time discussing Sprint as well as the state of the cable industry.

 

Sprint’s Head is Above Water

There’s a lot to cover with Sprint’s earnings (full archive here).  Most importantly, they eked out 56,000 postpaid net additions (22,000 of which were phones) which translates into 0.18% growth (in contrast, T-Mobile grew their branded postpaid customer base by 3.3% or 18x faster).   Not exactly a marker that announces a comeback, but better than Verizon and AT&T phone net additions.

 

Sprint has purchased another year through a combination of collateralized loans, favorable lease financing terms, and dramatic cost reductions.   Their head is above water, but that’s about it.  Proclaiming a comeback is not only premature but incorrect, as the headwind of increased (lower ARPU) postpaid tablet churn needs to be offset by increased smartphone additions.  Sprint has no AT&T Mexico or Go90 to point to:   high ARPU smartphone growth is the only solution to Sprint’s problem. Incidentally, when we were in Stockholm – my buddy broke his arm one night doing something stupid, and we had to get a låna pengar direkt to get him to a hospital.

 

In last week’s Sunday Brief, we spent some time discussing what events would need to transpire to cause T-Mobile to stumble.  We discussed spectrum/ capacity, increased competition from Comcast and the cable industry as a whole, and from more activist regulation.  Admittedly, it’s hard to concoct the scenario that causes T-Mobile to weaken.

 

Contrast that with Sprint.  Everybody loves the underdog and wants to see them succeed.  But it’s just as hard to craft an equation that results in Sprint growing at T-Mobile’s rates as it was to write last week’s column.  How can Sprint regain its brand and get on the right track?

 

  1. Focus on data speeds. No doubt, Sprint’s Network Vision initiative is driving Sprint’s voice leadership.  We have looked extensively at the RootMetrics data (all 125 markets with a rolling six-month view) and Sprint either wins call quality or gets real close (within 3 points out of the 100-point scale) in 86% of the markets.  That’s a very respectable figure.  But Sprint is performing equally poorly with network speeds, with a material difference between Sprint and the winner (more than 3 points) in 91% of the markets.  In fact, Sprint has only won five markets of the 125 measured by Root Metrics over the past six months:  Corpus Christi (thanks in large part to the 2014/ 2015 Dish fixed wireless trial), Cincinnati, Denver, Houston and Las Vegas.

 

Improved data speeds are going to be needed to retain the current base.  Sprint has attracted many bargain hunters with 50% off service rates and attractive lease options, but what will keep the base from moving back to their previous carrier?  And what will compel previous Sprint customers to return?  One answer:  data speeds.

 

When Sprint can prove (hopefully through word-of-mouth testimonials) that their data network can perform consistently (and geographically) better than T-Mobile and Verizon, then their larger competitors should get worried.  They have done this in five markets, and have 120 left to go.

 

  1. Have a benchmark differentiator that others cannot (easily) replicate. We talked about this when we put together the 2016 “To Do” list for Sprint.  Sprint needs a “Push to Talk” equivalent for this decade.  More than a gimmick or headline for a commercial – something that attracts customers but also solves a pain point.  Here are two that we think might be worth exploring:

 

  1. Develop a postpaid retail relationship with Xiaomi to be their flagship phone provider in the US. The Chinese carrier has been very successful in its home country, but overseas growth has been elusive.  They received very strong reviews on their Mi 5 smartphone (see The Verge review here) which retails for $260, and their Mi Pad 2 has seen extremely strong demand in a very weak tablet market.  Get a little bit of exclusivity, and tune the device to work particularly well with Sprint’s 2.5 GHz network.  The result would be a great device with minimal lease payments (good for all balance sheets) and an association with the challengers.

 

  1. at&T fee structureEliminate the device addition fee for all customers. This “fee free” component would be a body blow to the industry and present Sprint as a viable alternative to Verizon and AT&T.  Shown nearby is AT&T’s current fee structure:  each new device carries a $10-30 monthly fee in addition to data usage.  Does the carrier incur any material additional costs to add a device?    Would a “fee free” structure be easy for Verizon and AT&T to replicate without significant economic harm?  It’s unlikely that they would match it right away, and T-Mobile does not have a shareable data plan to match Sprint’s offer.  Would this allow Sprint to have a competitive headline rate and still grow profitably?  Absolutely.  Sprint could build their future around the connected world with a commitment to no device add-on charges.  It’s this decade’s PTT.

 

  1. latency grid sprintnetSell the Internet backbone while there is still time. Sprint is a fundamentally different company than it was 2-5-10 years ago.  While they continue to report wireline division earnings on a separate basis, you would be hard pressed to find a wireline organizational chart in Overland Park.  Sprint has a world-class IP backbone which is being constrained by shrinking capital budgets.  As the nearby chart shows (see corresponding link here), SprintLink performs extremely well against its peers.  While its role in the Internet community is not what it was a decade or two ago, Sprint is still viewed as a legitimate and independent authority on routing, address management, and other critical infrastructure topics.  Others need Sprint’s capabilities and would pay for their embedded base.  Sell it now, before it is too late.

 

There are more ways that Sprint could create competitive differentiation, and they are taking a lot of steps in the right direction with third-party network maintenance, software-based network functionality (although small cells still require fiber) and personalized self-care solutions.

 

Bottom line:  Sprint is in fourth place, and they need to plan for a future where they are in third or second place.  The network is not ready to be scaled nationally, but could be in certain markets by the end of the year.  The LTE network reaches close to 300 million POPs, but Sprint’s continued dependence on CDMA as a backup will hinder their ability to compete against Verizon (who could introduce an LTE-only phone as early as 2017).   Sprint needs to get creative and take risks.  Otherwise, they will become the wireless equivalent of DSL to the telecom community (good, but not good enough).

 

Thoughts on Cable Performance

comcast revenue growth ratesIt’s great being Comcast in 2016.  Video is stable (Comcast actually grew video subscribers from 23.375 million in Q1 2015 to 24.0 million in Q1 2016 with minimal loss in ARPU), and High Speed Internet continues healthy growth (1.4 million annual and 438K sequential growth, while rival AT&T shrunk by 250K over the same period).  Business services remains on a roll (17.5% y-o-y growth) and segment revenues should top $6 billion in 2016 even as they are just getting started with medium and enterprise customers.

 

Everything is coming up roses for the nation’s largest cable company, and the best part of it is operating cash flow (OCF).  Comcast’s cable unit generated a whopping $19 billion in OCF for 2015 and the first quarter of 2016 would seem to indicate that it’s going to be a slightly better year. In comparison, AT&T generated $7.9 billion in cash flow in the first quarter from operations but that figure includes their wireless unit (Verizon’s wireline EBITDA is less than $2.3 billion quarterly).  It’s likely that Comcast is now the most profitable (quantity, not margin %) wireline operator in the US.  As we discussed in a previous column, they enjoy low leverage relative to their peers, and have just under $6 billion in the bank for the 600 MHz spectrum auctions.  Bottom line:  It’s great to be Comcast.

 

The rest of the cable industry is going through a massive consolidation through the rest of 2016.  This would seem to open the High Speed Internet door for Verizon, AT&T, Frontier and CenturyLink:  Use the disruption created by cable consolidation to increase telco share of decisions.  Traditional telcos have their own issues, however:  Verizon strike, Frontier’s transition after acquiring TX, CA, and FL FiOS properties from Verizon, and CenturyLink’s overall turnaround efforts make the opportunity to quickly seize market share more complicated.

 

Like Comcast, each of the cable companies are growing business services (Charter’s grew at 11.9% annually, while Time Warner Cable’s grew at 13.4%), and High Speed Internet additions were good (in fact, the combined Charter/ TWC/ Bright House Networks added more HSI subscribers than Comcast).  Based on the earnings reports to date, it’s likely that cable’s share of total HSI additions was very close to 100%.

 

Without a doubt, there will be threats to the current model.  Hulu is going to come out with a live streaming service similar to (or better than) Sling in 2017 (see Wall Street Journal report here – subscription required).  This will require more powerful modems and many bandwidth upgrades.  As Ultra HD proliferates (it needs a constant 25 Mbps according to Netflix), the pressure to upgrade will continue to accelerate.  This is the push and pull of being a cable operator:  How much for the bandwidth upgrade versus promoting the current video scheme?  Can Hulu market their over the top service better than cable?  And what about caps (and the government’s response if they are triggered too often)?

 

Bottom line:  Even with the turmoil of consolidation, the cable industry is in the catbird’s seat.  They should aggressively push DOCSIS 3.1 as their standard and charge customers the premium monthly service fee it deserves (and encourage customers to purchase their own modem if that is their preference).  After the “shiny new thing” hype that is OTT has died down, most customers will see that OTT expands and personalizes content options (primary benefit) while saving some money (secondary benefit).  Like all hardware transitions, however, the Hulu effect will take 3-5 years to fully materialize.  Until then, the good times will keep rolling.

 

Thanks for your readership and continued support of this column.  Next week, we’ll continue earnings analysis and hopefully be able to opine on the Appeals Court ruling on the Open Internet Order.  As a result of the job change, we are not going to accept any new readers, but you can direct them to www.mysundaybrief.com for the full archive.  Thanks again for your readership, and Go Royals!

What Can Stop T-Mobile

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Last week’s Sunday Brief (which focused on Verizon’s earnings and their relationship with Tracfone) incorrectly indicated that T-Mobile was owned by America Movil.  The statement should have read that Tracfone is owned by America Movil.  Apologies for any confusion this may have caused. 

 

lead pic (17)May greetings from Paris (where it was unseasonably cold – entrance to the Louvre at night is pictured) and Dallas (where it is unseasonably wet).  This week has been full of earnings news for both the wireless and broadband wireline, as well as Internet companies such as Amazon.  Given the attempt to be brief each week, we are going to focus on T-Mobile today, and will tackle the earnings progress from Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter, Sprint, CenturyLink and AT&T through the remainder of May.

 

Special Announcement

Before diving into T-Mobile earnings, I am pleased to announce that I’ll be joining the ranks of full-time employment starting in early June.  I’ll be running the North American wireless business for ACN, a Charlotte-based direct marketer/ MVNO with three wireless carriers as networks and strong growth potential.  ACN has been a client for over three years and their management team is exceptionally strong.  Distribution and handsets are two of the important factors when running an MVNO; ACN excels in the former with more than 81,000 sales makers in the United States and growing operations across 23 additional countries.

 

Many of you understand my love for the Tar Heel state, and especially my alma mater, Davidson College.  It’ll be good to re-root there after a 24-year absence.  As a result of my new job, the Sunday Brief is going to cease publication after the June 6 issue.  I’ll be suggesting other interesting blogs and news outlets for you to peruse, and we’ll keep www.mysundaybrief.com up and running (with better indexing) for the next year or so.  I’ll still surface as a guest writer, panelist and speaker periodically, but the weekly written Brief is going to disappear into the summer breezes.  If you need more than that, you’ll have to swing by Charlotte and try for a special luncheon edition (or coffee, or happy hour, or … ).

What Can Stop T-Mobile?

prepaid retail addsT-Mobile announced earnings on Tuesday morning (full package here), and the results were strong across the board.  Prepaid was especially strong (807K net adds; 3.84% monthly churn), as Metro PCS took share from Sprint (retail as well as Boost/ Virgin) and other smaller brands.  T-Mobile’s opportunities continue to expand as their LTE and 700 MHz (Band 12) networks grow.

 

Rather than a straight dive into their earnings or comparing their progress to the “To Do” list we built after the first quarter release, I thought it might be beneficial to talk about three factors that would cause T-Mobile’s momentum to be derailed.  Their metrics were good, and sensing the possible headwinds is not easy to do, but here’re a few thoughts about what could derail their three-year winning streak:

 

  1. They could run out of spectrum (or the cost to densify the existing spectrum could be too steep). T-Mobile has made it clear for a long time that they need to 600 MHz capacity to meet data needs (50% annual growth adds up after a few years).  On the earnings call, they were quick to describe their $7-8 billion trove available for the auction.

t-mobile average spectrum positionOne of the important announcements surrounding spectrum available came on Friday, when the FCC announced that 126 MHz of spectrum would be available (the amount by market varies, but the vast majority of markets have 10 blocks of 10 MHz spectrum available with minimal interference).  The bottom line of this announcement is that there will be plenty of spectrum for bidders to purchase.

 

Could Comcast, NTT DoCoMo, America Movil and other spectrum speculators bid up the 30 MHz in the reserve auction and make the spectrum too expensive for T-Mobile?  It’s technically possible, but the likelihood is remote.  Could the FCC have generously qualified some spectrum as being “unimpaired” that takes years if not a decade to clear?  Perhaps, but again, the chance is very remote.

 

After Friday’s announcement, the exact opposite scenario becomes more likely:  T-Mobile shows up at the auction and bids $8 billion for a large swath of spectrum (30 MHz by 30 MHz being the best case) which sets the company up for capacity for the next decade.

  1. pivothandsetT-Mobile could face a formidable challenge from Comcast following the auction. As we reported in two weeks ago in The Sunday Brief, Comcast is the largest cable provider yet the least leveraged (even after they buy Dreamworks SKG for $3.8 billion).  If no one shows up to the 600 MHz auction, Comcast could see this as a rare buying opportunity and deploy the spectrum as a defensive measure against Verizon and AT&T.  This would represent a pivot of sorts from their current relationship with Verizon (Pivot was the name of the product that Comcast, Cox, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks formed with Sprint a decade ago).

 

There’re a lot of “ifs” in the previous paragraph.  Comcast would have to pay $5 billion or so for spectrum covering their territory, and another $5 billion or so to have a robust nationwide network (even with the ample supply described above, which should keep overall bid levels in check).  While they would have a distinct advantage with owner’s economics on the bandwidth going to each tower (although Zayo, Level3, or regional players to unseat Comcast as a supplier), they would not have a competitive advantage when it comes to constructing, operating, and maintaining tower assets.

 

On top of this, Comcast lacks the retail distribution network to distribute traditional smartphones.  With enough promotional money, Best Buy or WalMart could provide that network, but it’s unlikely that Comcast would be able to avoid the store requirements (people, capital, inventory, etc.).  Because smartphones are critical to daily lives, the thought of shipping devices through Amazon will not work – stores will be required.  T-Mobile has an extensive exclusive dealer network and has the process of operating and maintaining a store down to a science.

 

comcast_logo_detailA merged Comcast/ Sprint (post-bankruptcy) presents an entirely different competitor.  We’ll know more about Sprint’s overall health and the prospect of paying their long-term debts after they announce earnings next week, but if Comcast could receive regulatory approval, a Sprint combination would erase the problems described above.  If Comcast had 600 MHz, and Sprint brings 2.5 GHz (and minimal indebtedness), the resulting fiber-dense, data-focused, content-capable entity that would result could threaten T-Mobile… in 5-7 years.

 

The chances of Comcast receiving regulatory approval for the acquisition of any telecommunications asset without giving up a lot in the process is practically zero unless the new FCC Chairman is a former Comcast employee (or cable executive).  While matchmaking dreams create theoretical possibilities, T-Mobile’s greatest competitive threat would likely come from an America Movil expansion with Sprint of Verizon, not from Comcast.

 

  1. Regulations (including those tied to M&A activity) could fetter T-Mobile’s ability to expand. This scenario does not entirely stop T-Mobile’s progress, but merely stunts their growth.  The worst-case scenario (without M&A activity) goes as follows:

 

  1. The FCC retains the right to regulate wireless carriers as utilities (a.k.a., “Full Title II”). Note: Appeals Court analysts believe that if anything gets thrown overboard in their ruling, it’s the FCC’s ability to regulate wireless carriers as utilities.  What’s important to remember is that the Wheeler FCC will continue to press for increased regulation so long as they believe competition will be helped.  They feel vindicated from their decision to disallow the Sprint/ T-Mobile merger.
  2. tomwheelerUsing their newfound rights, the FCC establishes a rule disallowing any sort of metered/ slowed content distribution, including Binge On, sponsored data efforts like Verizon’s FreeBee, and the like. Also, the FCC rules that offering products that inherently operate at slower speeds than their underlying networks/ devices allow (a four-cylinder governor on an eight-cylinder engine) is also illegal.  This would force eliminate the practice of data precedence (more on that here) and potentially make the MetroPCS product less competitive.
  3. Also, the Congress, in conjunction with the FCC, could move to unbundle wireless access (perhaps as a part of a broader unbundling of broadband), forcing T-Mobile and the rest of the industry to provide would-be competitors wireless access at long-run incremental costs (a TSLRIC for wireless). While this might make some content providers salivate, the probability that the FCC and Congress would extend Title II into full unbundling is about as probable as a Bernie Sanders administration receiving Republican support for their tax proposals.

 

Of course, the FCC could discover plenty of ways to reduce pricing competitiveness short of full price regulation (which is extremely unlikely).  They could also open up even larger swaths of unlicensed (WiFi) spectrum at lower 900 MHz spectrum bands (called ISM for Industrial, Scientific, and Medical) and create an effective competitor to 600, 700, and 800 MHz carrier-owned frequencies.  This possibility received a real boost when the WiFi alliance announced the HaLow band at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES).  More from their announcement here.  Cable companies would likely support more 900 MHz WiFi as it would increase the value and reach of their Cable WiFi footprint for both out-of-home consumer web browsing and small business customers.

 

None of the regulatory scenarios described above consider additional FCC conditions attached to a proposed merger, either with Sprint or another carrier (e.g. US Cellular might be a good fit in the North Central US, but the complex ownership structure with parent TDS would need to be resolved).  Any Sprint acquisition concessions, even under a friendly scenario, could hurt T-Mobile’s current growth trajectory (although they would be acquiring a large base of customers).

 

While spectrum concerns, new entrants, and increased government regulation could possibly thwart T-Mobile’s momentum, it would require a cocktail of all three plus an economic downturn plus the collapse of global credit markets to derail their locomotive.  $650 porting/switching incentives from Verizon and AT&T implemented in Q1 2016 have not worked.  Claims of an inferior network have not worked (especially as T-Mobile’s network is expanding).  Denigrating their metropolitan focus with racially/ethnically charged word association games has not worked.  And thoughts that management would grow complacent and “take a breather” is a pipe dream.

 

Bottom line:  It will take a lot of factors, working in tandem, to slow T-Mobile’s progress.  Anything is possible, but as of now, spectrum supply, handset supply, relatively low tablet churn exposure, and improved network quality make continued growth the most likely scenario.

 

Thanks for your readership and continued support of this column.  Next week, we’ll compare AT&T, Comcast, Charter, Time Warner Cable, and Level3 earnings in less than 200 words.  As a result of the job change, we are not going to accept any new readers, but you can direct them to www.mysundaybrief.com for the full archive.  Thanks again for your readership, and Go Royals and Sporting KC!